Relating, Creating, Transforming

What Gives You Life?

John 10:1-10

Open-Gate
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the intersection of religion and politics. Now before you run away after hearing this, please hear me out. I know some of us prefer to avoid that conversation, but I think it’s really important to address it. Religion and politics have been intertwined ever since human beings started saying and defining those two words. Though people who live in countries like the U.S. that claim to be democracies often think that religion and politics are separate, it’s time for some honesty. Religions have always influenced political policies; political movements and policies have influenced religions. Currently, many in the U.S. are perhaps recognizing this for the first time, even though it is nothing new. When things like health care are discussed, or marriage rights, or abortion, climate change, capital punishment, gender equality, trans rights, etc., it quickly becomes clear that a person’s religious tradition [or lack thereof] informs how they view these issues. If you haven’t noticed, since the new administration took office, many religious groups across the spectrum have been more vocal about government policies that are inhumane, harmful, and even evil.

We need to leave space for these conversations to happen and people of all religious traditions and secular traditions should not ever be afraid to stand up against any policy or political movement that threatens people’s humanity or rights. It is our responsibility to do so, even if said policies do not affect us personally, because they affect our neighbors. Of course, this is what Jesus taught and did—even though it was not popular. In the Gospels, Jesus is often portrayed as the presence of the Divine as hoped for in the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah—bringing justice, healing, and reconciliation to an unjust, wounded, and divided world.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus often expressed identity with I AM statements, in Greek the ego eimi. In fact, John’s Jesus uses this phrase seven times. I AM…the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, and the true vine. And in John 10 Jesus also expressed what Jesus is not. Jesus is not a thief or destroyer of life, but instead a giver of life, a full life. John’s metaphor involved sheep, a shepherd, and a gate. Jesus was portrayed as a good shepherd, one who will lay down one’s own life for the sheep, stand with them when they are in trouble. In fact, this image of Jesus as good shepherd is a more ancient symbol for Jesus than the cross. Before Roman Christianity developed its own symbols, followers of Jesus resonated with the simple image of a shepherd who cares for sheep and knows them by name.

good-shepherd

Sadly, as mentioned previously, religions are created by humans and thus end up serving the desires of humans. That means that religions easily lose their way when they stray from the core elements of message and practice. Jesus, in no Gospel account, was violent, uncaring, exclusive, or judgmental.

Jesus didn’t try to steal people’s identities.

Jesus didn’t destroy people’s lives. Jesus was a giver of life to all. And yet, particular brands of Christianity [including American Christianity] have skewed Jesus’ message and even the image of the good shepherd to be about exclusion, judgement, and even violence. It is so sad to know that there are people who claim to be a follower of this Jesus and consistently mistreat people because of their cultural or linguistic heritage; their gender expression or identification; who they love; how much money they have; the color of their skin. This is why, as I mentioned, it is essential for us to not be silent while this is going on. We cannot hide from the wolves and thieves who seek to destroy. We must confront them, for the sake of our friends and neighbors who are being bullied, and excluded, and told that their lives do not have value.

And we need to tell the blessed story that gives life. Everyone deserves this type of love and care that the good shepherd offers to all. Everyone. And all of us should be loving and caring in this way, in the world. For if we choose to identify with this good shepherd, if we choose to believe that God offers us a full life and acceptance as we are, then doesn’t it follow that we should wish for others to experience the same thing?

You see, I think what gives us life as individuals is a good place to start. So ask yourself: what gives me life? Who are the people who give me life? Go to that place. Then, think about all those around you—regardless of their religious traditions or lack thereof; no matter what gender they express or identify with; no matter who they love or what they look like or how much they make or what language they speak. Think about those around you. Don’t you want them to feel alive, cared for, loved? My answer is yes. And all of us who do answer yes to that question, let’s do something about it. Be life-givers in your conversations, your interactions, your decisions, your tweets, and your connections. And if you feel bullied or destroyed or hurt or not invited—I am sorry that this has happened to you. It’s not something you deserve. What you do deserve is love and kindness and community. Let’s work on that together.

 

Luke 24  

 path

Not that long ago if we needed to walk, drive, or take public transportation to a place we asked other people how to get there. Then, we used paper maps. After that, we typed the address into a computer and printed out Mapquest directions. Remember that?

mapquest

Then the GPS with the somewhat unreliable suction. And now, of course, when we want to go somewhere we simply tell our phone where want to go, the mode of transportation, and we not only get directions to that place, but how long it will take us, alternative routes due to traffic, construction, or a Godzilla attack, and also we get to see our progress on the screen, right before our eyes.

The roads we travel have seemingly become more accessible with this kind of technology. It is true—we are traveling more now as a human species than ever before. We honestly don’t have the same excuses for not going places and the whole “I got lost” argument usually falls pretty flat these days. All that aside, traveling the road to a destination is an important metaphor in life. I invite you to think about all the different kinds of roads you have traveled on—and all the different kinds of places those roads led you to.

When I was younger and living in rural Iowa, country roads [and even gravel roads] were part of life. I spent a lot of my time walking down these roads, as public transportation was scarce and I didn’t have a car. Where we lived in Central Iowa, the roads rolled over hills [yes, Iowa has hills!] and at the top of certain hills you could see for miles. Before you got to the top of the hill, though, you couldn’t see anything. Gravel roads are interesting, mainly because anything or anyone that has traveled ahead of you kicks up dust. The general rule when you are walking on a gravel road is to wear sunglasses or to walk backwards. Otherwise, you’ll be begging for eye drops in a hot second. The other type of road in Iowa I remember distinctly is highway 65/69. That thing went on forever, and when we had to go to faraway places, at times I felt that it would never end. The speed limit is 75 and you still feel like you’re crawling along. Maybe it’s the eternal stretch of cornfields on your way through Nebraska? Think about all the different kinds of roads you have traveled on.

The reason that the road is a an oft-used metaphor for life isn’t hard to understand, is it? Because all of us use all kinds of roads to get from one place to another. The roads wind and turn and go up and down and stretch for miles. They are made of dirt, cobblestone, gravel, asphalt, grass, and rock.

Sometimes we can see what’s ahead on the road; sometimes we can’t see anything at all.

The other part of the road is life metaphor is who you meet on that road. Believe it or not, even on lonely, country roads in rural Iowa I met people, or sometimes other living beings. As you can imagine, along a country road in Iowa, there were animals. Cows, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats, deer, and all sorts of creatures. Just when I thought I was completely alone on the road, they greeted me with a sound or a smell or a movement. And from time to time I encountered a farmer, or a person walking their dog, or someone on a tractor. Kids would appear on bikes or motorcycles. Cars whizzed past. It honestly makes me think a lot about life. There have been many times when I have felt like I was walking down a lonely stretch of rural Iowa roads—not sure if I would encounter anyone, not convinced that the road would ever come to an end. And then, I was surprised. I was surprised by life I didn’t expect to see—connections with people that recharged my batteries and picked me up off the mat.

Those connections with people on the road of life, whether short or long ones, helped me get to know myself better and reminded me that I was not alone.

Of course, part of the road has also included recognizing that unfortunately, some people I meet on the road are not kind and not healthy for me to be around. Those encounters [and the consequent walking on/moving on from those relationships] taught me a lot about the kinds of people who really do care and truly accept me.

The story in the Gospel of Luke 24 is often called “The Road to Emmaus.” It involves two people, former followers of Jesus of Nazareth, walking on a road after Jesus’ death. Emmaus, according to historians and scholars, probably was not a real place at all. Further, the two people on the road are not identifiable. So this is the storyteller saying to us: You are Cleopas. You are walking on that road with someone. You don’t know where that road will take you—Emmaus? Timbuktu? A hole in the space-time continuum? We are walking down that road. And we don’t know where it leads. But where we are going/where the two disciples are going, isn’t the point.

The point is who they meet on the road.

A stranger. Any random person you may encounter while at the grocery store, a park, on a street corner. A stranger. You have no expectations for this encounter. But the stranger seems to care about what you’re going though. You’re sad, lost, distracted. The stranger listens. This stranger then seems to share some of your sacred stories and important feelings. The stranger accepts you as you are, where you are on that road to seemingly nowhere. Eventually, the two travelers in the story recognize the stranger. It was Jesus—their teacher, their friend. They felt connected again, but only after they ate together. Must have reminded them of their favorite moments on the road. In fact, their eyes were open and they even saw themselves as newly alive.

Now I know that for many of you, maybe Jesus won’t be the stranger you meet on the road. Maybe that religious narrative isn’t where you are right now. We get caught up with the name and concept of Jesus too much, if you ask me. So just consider—if you were to meet a stranger on the road who listened to you, accepted you, and inspired you to open your eyes—who would that person be?

And, are you open enough to affirm that this person could actually be anyone? The person next to you pumping gas? The child laughing at the playground? A teacher? An acquaintance at church, or school, or work?

See, I think that Jesus never meant for us to be so reliant on some religious idea of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. I think that Jesus meant for his followers and friends to find resurrection in themselves, along the journey, on the road, and to have their eyes opened by the encounters with people on that road. Because when we share with each other, we feel less alone and more connected. When we open ourselves to random encounters and distance ourselves from the unhealthy encounters—the ones that try to change our story and don’t accept us as we are. When we do that, I think we can be surprised. We can meet each other on the road and find encouragement and connection. Because this road is not a straight line. And sometimes you will feel alone and disconnected. But keep walking your unique road. Encounter people who will truly listen to you and accept you. May our eyes be opened.

Matthew 28:1-10

butterrain
The season of spring is one that many people point to as their favorite season–at least for those who live in places where winter cold is a reality and the arrival of spring’s warmth and sunshine is a welcome change. Even in other places where the weather doesn’t seem to change, like in Honolulu, Hawai’i where I once lived, one can sense the change. Though on the island of Oahu I never experienced cold weather and grey skies, I did experience a rainy season that eventually gave way to sunshine…and rainbows. I’ve also been to a place called the city of eternal spring or la ciudad de la eternal primavera, Cuernavaca, Mexico.

1280px-Cuernavaca_c274_oCuernavaca is located in a tropical region, but its temperature stays pretty much in the 70s Fahrenheit, because it is situated on the southern slope of the Sierra de Chichinautzin mountains. When you wake up in the morning in Cuernavaca, warm air flows up the mountains from the valley below. When you’re having a coffee in the late afternoon, cooler air flows down from the higher elevations.

Spring as a season, of course, is full of symbolism. Rebirth, new life, flowers blooming, etc, etc. Across religious traditions there is a rich tapestry of spring-like themes and expressions. In the Christian tradition we read a story each springtime about Jesus of Nazareth disappearing from a tomb where a body was supposed to be, and then varied experiences of people seeing or hearing Jesus alive. It’s impossible for me to address all of the nuance and history of the resurrection stories in the four Gospel accounts. For the sake of our conversation, I’ll simply remind us all that each of the four Gospel stories about Jesus’ resurrection are different. The original story, in Mark, is really short and contains no actual appearance of the risen Jesus. Luke and Matthew expand Mark’s story, and John has a different take. The fact that all four stories differ from each other tells us that there was no established narrative about Jesus’ resurrection in the 50-100 years after Jesus’ death.

We are looking at Matthew’s version, a story that includes Mary Magdalene and the other Mary going to the tomb, but without spices and ointment. A great stone stood between them and the inside of the tomb. Matthew uses the word “behold” a lot in this version. Behold! A great earthquake! And behold! One lonely angel of the Lord [same wording Matthew uses when Jesus is born]. The angel is like the Incredible Hulk and thus able to move that great stone out of the way, and feeling quite pleased, the angel plops down on that great stone and takes a seat. The angel is wearing shiny, white clothes and looks quite like Jesus did in Matthew’s transfiguration story. A little resurrection bling-bling.

discoJesus

Kudos to the Disco Jesus creator.

Anyway, the Roman guards, symbols of power and strength and the military, are scared out of their minds and are shaken. They become like dead ones. Not so powerful now are ya? The angel, with a play on words, says to the women: Fear not! He is not here, he has been raised.

For the women, this would have been good news for many reasons. First, because they were all still upset about what had happened to Jesus. Also, the fact that Jesus had been raised to life meant that the work and words of Jesus would also not die, i.e. the way of compassion, gender equality, acceptance of the unclean, the sinners, and the marginalized being embraced.  The women are invited by the buff angel to look closer in the tomb to notice where Jesus once lay. But then, they are instructed to go right away and tell the others who followed Jesus. The angel must have a limited vocabulary in ancient Greek, because the angelic hulk keeps saying: Behold! He is going before you into Galilee, Behold! I have told you…and then Matthew adds one more in there: Behold! Jesus met them…

The women aren’t afraid and leave quickly to spread the news. And Behold! Jesus appears to them and greets them with xairete, a common phrase that was an everyday greeting. Funny, isn’t it? In spite of the earthquake, a great stone, an angel, and lots of Beholds! Jesus’ first words to the women are akin to: hey, what’s up, how you doin? The women are smart and go right for the feet of Jesus. And no, that’s not weird. You see, Matthew wants us to understand that this resurrected Jesus is not a ghost.

Okay, I get it. Each one of us will have a different take on this story and the whole resurrection thing. Just like the conflicting accounts in the Gospels, we won’t have the same view of it all. And that’s just fine, because the whole point of the resurrection story isn’t to prove something or disprove it, the point is not to claim that one religion is better than all the others because its prophet rose from the dead; the point is to find resurrection ourselves. That’s what each person who followed this Jesus were invited to discover–the resurrection in their own lives. This idea is all around us in nature with caterpillars, seeds, and eggs–going to dark places and seemingly lifeless–only to emerge reborn and beautifully alive. So no matter how you see this story, hear this:

Behold! You and I are invited to come out, to spring forth. It can be scary sometimes to do that, to be our true selves, to emerge just as we are. But we are encouraged to do so. We are encouraged with love and with healing to trade fear for emergence, for new life. Great stones and obstacles are moved to the side and we have room…to come out, to see this day [and every one after it] as a resurrection day, as a new start, as another opportunity to say and live: this is me. This is who I am. And I am loved. I am beautiful as I am. I may have scars and wounds and I may have felt dead on more than once occasion, but right now, in this moment, I am me. It is spring and I’m coming out, I’m blooming again.

And all around us are people with great stones holding them back and all around us are people who have been wounded and mistreated and pushed to the margins, and we have this chance, every day of this life, to say to them: Behold! I love you as you are; I accept you here and now and always; and you can come out and experience love and be who you are. This is resurrection. This is every day. Come on out. Behold! Your are loved, you are beautiful, and you are made to love, and to recognize the beauty in others, and in all life.

P.S. MUST listen to this song. It’s great. It says this better than I can.

 

John 20:19-29

yesnomaybeWe are all unique and thus, the ways we see the world vary. There is one thing, however, that we can all probably agree upon. At some point, all of us have had moments when we doubted. You know what I mean—it can even be simple. You are in the grocery store and you’re staring at twenty different kinds milk and you’re just not sure which one you should purchase.

milkchoicesAlmond? Coconut? Soy? Low fat, skim, whole, organic? And which brand? So you stare and stare at the milks and the doubt creeps in. People keep walking by and giving you weird looks, but they just don’t understand. Too many milks! Because of their leering gaze you rush to finally decide on unsweetened almond milk, but as you collapse exhausted in your car you’re honestly not really sure that you made the best choice.

Okay, so that’s a superficial example, but there are obviously many, many examples that are much deeper and important. Have you ever doubted some of the bigger decisions like which school should I attend? Should I quit my job and start fresh? Should I move? Should I make myself vulnerable with this person, not knowing if they will accept my feelings or reject them? Should I date, should I get married, should I have kids? Should I get divorced? Should I come out to my parents and coworkers? Should I ever do any of these things? Doubt is part of life. It is part of our human makeup.

When we doubt, we question things. And people. It’s not about always having a conspiracy theory for everything, though, it’s critical thinking. When we ask how did something come to be or how did I get this idea we are engaging our brains in an active dialogue that leads to growth and perspective. Doubt also helps us see the bigger picture and initiates progress, because when we doubt, we question the current state of things and wonder: can it get better than this? It’s questioning the status quo.

Of course, there is such a thing as healthy and unhealthy doubt. Unhealthy doubt, according to psychologists and behavioral therapists, is driven by anxiety and moods. It’s kneejerk. It demands absolute certainty and is not supported by sense evidence. It is often self-defeating. Feelings are accepted as facts, even if actual facts contradict our feelings. Unhealthy doubt is about “what if” scenarios—most likely imagining the worst-case scenario.

Healthy doubt, on the other hand, asks questions and searches for evidence in a scientific manner, rather than being driven by anxiety or moods. When no solid evidence is found, skepticism ends and there is not an attempt to override it.  Healthy doubt is relaxed and reasonable.

skepticism-is-healthy-doubt-when-faced-with-lack-of-credible-8760996So let’s pause for a moment. Ask yourself: can I think of examples of times when I have doubted in an unhealthy way? Can I think of times when I doubted in a healthy way?

And now, a story all about doubt—both unhealthy and healthy.

The author of the Gospel of John tells us that it was evening, just after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and all the doors of Jesus’ best friends were locked. They were afraid, anxious, and locked up. They doubted, most likely, all of what they had seen and heard with their teacher Jesus. Would the Roman authorities come for them next?

Unhealthy doubt closed their doors. But Jesus offered them something else—peace. Shalom, wholeness be yours. Then he breathed on them to remind them to forgive each other and move forward. They saw his wounded hands and side. Apparently, they needed to see.

But someone was missing. Thomas. Oft-called doubting Thomas wasn’t locked up. He was out. And he didn’t see Jesus appear, didn’t hear the double shalom, didn’t see the hands and side, didn’t get breathed on and told to forgive. And so, knowing that his colleagues were scared, anxious, and doubtful, Thomas refused to believe them without evidence. Why should he? Prove it.

Then, it was a week later.
Thomas was there with the others and Jesus appears. Shalom again, but directly to Thomas, telling him to reach out and touch the wounded hands and side. And Thomas decided to not touch anything.

In my view, Thomas engaged in healthy doubt, while his friends did not. He used the scientific method to arrive at evidence. He did not accept anxious, fearful conclusions and rationalizations. He asked: How do I know that this is really my teacher Jesus? And by asking that, he opened up to a healthy doubt that led to wholeness and growth.

So let’s ask the questions again: when have you doubted in an unhealthy way? And now, when have you doubted in healthy ways?

Matthew 21:1-11

Here we are reading a story that is usually associated with palm branches and hosannas. For many Christians, this is the story they hear each Sunday before Easter, called Palm Sunday. It’s a strange and complicated tale, because shortly after this weird parade, things go really bad for Jesus and co. Betrayals, arrests, torture, even death. I’ll never tell you what to think or how to interpret these stories—I simply share my thoughts, what I’ve studied, and what I’ve heard. Considering all that, I’ve never been one to think that Jesus of Nazareth knew that he actually would be tortured and crucified once in Jerusalem. I know that some of the Gospel writers allude to Jesus knowing and predicting it, but keep in mind how these stories were written and when they were written. These authors had the benefit of knowing what was going to happen, and they were also speaking to various groups of people who needed context. In my view, this doesn’t taint the story. I actually think it makes it better. Consider that if Jesus didn’t know what was going to happen in Jerusalem. Consider that even after Jesus’ death Jesus’ friends and family and didn’t know how to interpret all that happened. And consider that it was a LONG time after that people finally decided to write down what stories they had heard about it.

In other words, I’m saying that the story gets richer for me when we ask the identity questions again:

Who was this Jesus? Who did people say Jesus was? What did Jesus say and do?

And who are we?

Because religion created the Jesus figure. Each and every form of Christianity, whether Eastern Christianity, Roman Christianity, American Christianity, etc. came up with their own version of Jesus. And so that work shouldn’t end. The story continues. Who is this Jesus? What did Jesus say and do? Who are we?

Let’s get to the story of the day, shall we? Jesus of Nazareth was finally reaching the climatic destination that all the Gospel writers foreshadow: Jerusalem, the mecca, the epicenter of religion and culture and language and…the Roman Empire.

Yeah, there’s that.

Consider that as Jesus and the ragtag band of followers processed towards the city for Passover, there was another procession. The Roman army came to the city from the west. They were the riot police before they were called riot police. They had one job during Passover: keep the peace. Because Jerusalem’s population would explode to more than 200,000 people for the festival. Because crazy, trouble-making fools like Jesus of Nazareth would be coming.

The stage is set.

Meanwhile, our storyteller throws in some quirky twists. Before they get to the city, Jesus sends people ahead—they have one job—go find a certain donkey and a colt. It’s a weird request, right? Or is it? It’s all setup beforehand. Because of the threat of danger, things are more secretive now—kind of a like a really good spy movie.

Daniel-Craig-james-bond-BWJesus. Jesus Bond?

Only Jesus doesn’t do the martini shaken not stirred. He’s more into red wine.

wineSink

Oh right—the donkey business. Matthew‘s author is asking us to pay attention [once again] to a story written mostly for Jews. The donkey, metaphorical or not, is meant to point to Jewish prophetic literature, and in this case, Zechariah: This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Keep in mind also that the people with Jesus, i.e. those called disciples or followers, were now at this point the loyal and close counterparts of Jesus. Those who met them outside Jerusalem, however, and put their cloaks on the ground, were not all sympathetic to their cause. And once inside the city, things got even worse. People did not celebrate Jesus and his little parade—instead there was confusion, skepticism, and in some cases, even anger. It was never really a celebratory parade. It was a messy protest.

And all this leads us back to the questions. Who is Jesus? What did Jesus say and do?

Who are we?

The way I see it—Jesus wasn’t a king, at least not the type of king or ruler we usually imagine. Jesus didn’t wield power, didn’t sit up on some throne barking orders, didn’t stand far off aloof from the common people, didn’t press buttons to launch war weapons, didn’t see violence as any kind of answer. Neither was Jesus a religious leader who wore a big and funny hat with extra jewelry and long prayers and holier than thou attitude. But neither was Jesus a political revolutionary who used weapons to make change or who held up the end far above the means.

Jesus was and is to me, someone who represented the best of what our humanity full-expressed can be: Jesus loved and accepted people as they were, and encouraged them to heal in any way they needed to.

And Jesus stood up to bullies.

Oh yes, he did. He stood up against his own people the Pharisees and called them out for their hypocrisy. He stood up to the Roman bullies who hid behind their forums and pillars to avoid seeing the horrific aftermath of their wars, the extreme poverty caused by their taxation, and the inhumanity of their occupations of other’s lands. Jesus stood up to the bullies. And yes, it was dangerous. Yes, it was difficult. But Jesus’ love for people moved him to stand up.

Friends, I don’t know where you are today or what you’re thinking now. I’m asking myself: Who are you today? What do you do and say, how are you loving and accepting people as they are, and how are you standing up to the bullies? Because there is no fear in love. If we love, we cannot let fear overwhelm us and hold us back. We love. We must stand up.

What is happening in Syria, what happened in Rwanda and South Sudan, and all other places where genocide and war and inhuman acts reign, these tragedies and unspeakable acts are and were made up of moments when a group turned into a crowd, when people turned on an imagined enemy because someone planted that evil seed. It happens here and everywhere. Mosques and Sikh Gurdwaras and Hindu temples and Jewish synagogues have been attacked and vandalized — hate graffiti is painted on walls and cemeteries are vandalized. Trans people are beat up in the street and terrorized, bullied in bathrooms, made to live in fear, made to feel lesser. Those who are homeless are robbed, beaten, and left to die. Black and Brown people are targeted, beaten, arrested, and sometimes even wrongfully killed.  Anyone who “looks” Mexican is told “Go back to your country, we don’t want you here!” Look, as a humanity, we have to face something—that we can find ourselves getting swept up into a parade of emotion and fear and misunderstanding, and before we know it, we are participating either directly or indirectly in bullying. We may want to walk with Jesus and the disciples from the East, but we can easily join the Roman legions from the West.

And that’s why Jesus’ example and the story matter. We cannot stop all the suffering in the world, no. But we can be aware, we can stand in witness, we can stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized or victimized. What we cannot change, we can acknowledge. We can love by doing this, by listening to someone’s story and saying: I hear you, I love you. Your suffering is not ignored, not unseen.

And I’ll stand with you—I’ll stand with all of you who are hurt or lonely or rejected. I’ll choose not to follow the bullying crowd and instead I’ll stand close to you, on the margins, loving you. In doing this, we stand as close as we can to the Spirit, to the Divine presence, who is constantly offering love, offering healing, offering identity.

 

Ezekiel 37:1-10 NRSV

desolateLifeHave you ever felt like you were in a place of desolation? In other words, when have you felt hopeless, stranded, parched from thirst, empty?

Part of our humanity is in recognizing that we do have these low moments—periods of time when we just don’t know if we can continue living. We feel dead. We don’t know if feeling alive again is possible. I invite you to remember when you have felt like this. Where were you? What was happening? What were the sights, sounds, and smells? Maybe today, in this moment, you are experiencing a desolate time.

This is not meant to be a downer of a message. I’m simply saying that we must recognize our “death,” our emptiness, giving ourselves space to express frustration, anger, and sadness. We should not suppress such feelings as this can only entrench us deeper in despair. It’s even important to say and express when God feels far away or even absent. This type of recognition in life is often referred to as spiritual and emotional exile.

In the Jewish tradition, the notion of spiritual exile is important. And it is based on an actual exile and the continuing dynamic of the city of Jerusalem. Most scholars, including Walter Brueggemann believe that the book of Ezekiel was written during the crisis of 587 B.C.E., i.e. the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the consequent exile of the Israelites in Babylonia.[1] Ezekiel was a priest and a prophet. He witnessed the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and saw the temple in ruins: desolation. And then Ezekiel, and his community from Judah, were taken to a strange place far from home. The people around them were different religiously and culturally. There was very little hope of returning to Judah, of going back home. And even if they did go back home, the city they loved was in ruins.

So the story goes that Ezekiel had a vision, and in this dream Yahweh’s spirit takes him to a valley of dry bones. As a priest, this would have been extremely uncomfortable, for dead bodies were unclean. This vision was repulsive, actually, it’s supposed to be gruesome. Use your imagination. Think ugly, horrific, disgusting even. This dream is meant to challenge Ezekiel, and all of Israel. Did they really think that Yahweh was confined to a temple or to a city? Did they really think that YHWH could not exist, be present, in a valley of dry bones? Could not YHWH be with them even in exile?

At the moment, the Israelites and Ezekiel thought God had abandoned them. They had no hope because they had lost their financial, cultural, and religious stability. Their community had no life. No way these bones can live.

But YHWH has something to say, something to do.

I will cause breathe, lay sinews, cause flesh to form, I will cover those skeletons—I will put breathe in these bones.

The point YHWH is making is that people must enter into a new way of thinking and doing, leaving the past behind. What they have always thought and done is not helping them—it is hurting them and sucking the life from them. They are challenged to see new life even in a valley full of dry bones. They must ask themselves: can you imagine dry bones coming to life? If so, what can you imagine for your community? What can you imagine for yourself?

Maybe we hear Isaiah’s voice: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19). The way is the spirit, once again that symbol of Divine wind/breath. Restoration is possible when the people recognize the spirit moving, bringing life even in desolation and despair.

I hope you find some meaning in this story for yourself. Personally, I see this as a call for me to be more honest about those moments when I do feel empty and like dry bones. Because in that honesty, I open myself up to change; I open myself up to others. I also recognize that life will not always be happy, wonderful, and as planned. I won’t always be comfortable or at home. I will sometimes be in spiritual and personal exile.

I also hear, though, that this story is about community. It isn’t just about Ezekiel finding a spiritual path or renewal. It is about whole communities discovering that. So I’m asking this question: what and who in our communities are in need of hope and new life, who is broken and in despair?

Friends, we are all those dry bones; spread out across a massive desolate land we call earth. We all wait for fresh breath of spirit to move through us, reviving us, filling in flesh and skin, making us whole once again. Don’t we? Wherever you are, wherever we are in our community, may we find new life and may we breathe new life into anyone or anything that needs it.

[1] An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination.

Seeing Wholly

John 9:1-7

Roots1943KahloRoots, Frida Kahlo, 1943

How do we see ourselves? Is our view of ourselves accurate? How do our experiences, both good and bad, affect how we see ourselves?

How do we see others? How do our experiences, what we hear or read, affect how we see other people?

How can we see ourselves and others more holistically and honestly?

What does Jesus teach us about this?

In this John story, we once again find a character encountering Jesus of Nazareth. Previously it was Nicodemus and then a Samaritan woman at a well. Now we have a person who supposedly had been blind from birth. A couple of things to note here. First, the Greek word that is translated “man” in English could be a mistake. The Greek word in question here, anthropon, does not refer to a male, but to a human being. This would not be a stretch to consider, because in many Gospel stories the characters encountering Jesus are not specifically gendered in Greek, so as to allow for all of us to identify with the characters. It’s unfortunate the most translations don’t use “person” or “human being” but we will. A person was blind from birth.

Blindness is also something to not take literally, necessarily. Blindness was a metaphor for not seeing people or the world wholly. Consider, however, that in Jesus’ time someone who was “blind from birth” was considered to be a “sinner” by religious people, and that possibly the sins/mistakes of that person’s parents were passed on. Even Jesus’ own disciples tried to moralize the situation, asking whose fault it was that this person was born blind. Who was to blame?

Do you see how this story is relevant? A person is given an identity by other people and called a sinner because of being born something from birth. Then people say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and blame the parents, then the parents blame the circumstances or God, and in the end, the person is left with a pretty messed up perspective and an identity crisis.

So what does Jesus do? Jesus spits on the ground and mixes saliva with mud. Back to the symbols of water and spirit. Saliva is living water, which is also spirit. These are the born from above ingredients. Plus, mud represents the earth and probably hearkens back to the Genesis creation story in the Torah. That would make sense if you consider that John’s Gospel alludes to Genesis quite frequently.

Back to the story. Jesus tells the blind person to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. So the blind person does so, eyes full of mud and saliva. The person comes back seeing.

Should be a huge celebration, right? Not so fast. The story continues on and the neighbors are not too accepting. They remember the person as blind, as a sinner. And now, this person sees? They also knew this human as a beggar. Aha. Even though the person keeps on saying: I am me—I am that person you knew! They don’t buy it. Consider that the now “seeing” person uses Ego eimi, the I AM Greek version of the divine name of YHWH used in Exodus, I am who I am. The person was now born from above, made up of water and spirit. This is how the person saw newly and wholly. Eyes were opened. Positive and personal identity claimed.

So I want to return to the questions asked at the very beginning:

How do we see ourselves? Is our view of ourselves accurate? How do our experiences, both good and bad, affect how we see ourselves?
How do we see others? How do our experiences, what we hear or read, affect how we see other people?

How can we see ourselves and others more holistically and honestly?

See. Yes, we need to see—ourselves and others, as human beings, as creatures made of water and spirit. We need to see each other. Personally, we are not the mistakes our predecessors or parents made. We are not the genders people or society assign to us. We are not the religious dogma we were raised with. We are not the sexual orientation others tell us we are. We are not the school we went to, the town or city or area we grew up in, we are not any of the categories that people assign to us. Instead, we are water mixed with spirit, connected to the good earth. We can all journey to the pool of Siloam together to see that we are beautifully, uniquely, and wonderfully made.

And along the way, We need to see others and stop assuming that someone is this or that based on those restrictive, linear categories. We need to hear someone say I am who I am and we need to celebrate it, accept it, and love that person as is. Identity is important for our health and wholeness.

What are you seeing in all this? What do you think?

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